This journey is set for its last stages as I travel from Texas across the southeast and continue up the east coast of the United States to New Jersey. In some ways these travels have started to feel like distant memories — demarcated in time by a diverse array of people, cities, universities, and events. While there were many months of directed planning and, perhaps years of hypothetical consideration, for me this journey started in earnest when I left New Jersey to start having conversations with influential psychologists in Massachusetts.
It was frightening.
I love psychology, I love hearing the stories of the field, and I love understanding the history of who we are and how we have grown as a discipline. But those first invitations to people to ask if they might meet with me were…well…my hands shook more than a little before I pressed “send” on those emails. Endowed fellows and major award winners, scholars who wrote the books and crafted the research that changed the field, the thinkers and creators that have now formed the heart of Psychology’s advances were the targets of my invitations. To do what they’ve done has demanded of them incredible sacrifice: most work intensive hours to support their labs with funding, publishing, and presenting. They are invited and participate on editorial boards and major organizations around the world. Many were APS and/or APA presidents and leaders. They have colleagues, students, staff, granting organizations, and home institutions that rely on them to lead us forward in science, academia, and even the very social institutions and policies governing our society. The demands they have faced are great and these amazing scholars met them with incredible perseverance, thick skins, and intensive work schedules.
I knew almost none of them personally and in most cases only knew of them from their impressive bodies of work. They knew me even less.
And yet, even with those first invitations, often people were gracious and welcoming. They indulged me with this project, giving of their time and entrusting me with candid stories of their intellectual emergence and growing maturity as scholars. The stories I’ve collected are of parents and of childhood past times. Music lessons, future teachers of america and marching bands. I’ve heard about families caught in Germany during WWII and daring tales of escape. Many spoke to me about the impact of the cold war as they faced the draft and served the military doing all they could to stay alive while facing the prospect of being drafted for combat. I heard about finding Psychology and the impact its had for their lives. For some the realization that you could study and understand thoughts and behaviors was a revelation that changed them from high school and college dropouts to motivated scientists. For some the intellectual journey was more gradual. Often there was serendipity. I heard about the big experiments, the big ideas, the big movements of the field — many that are now canon for our classes. More often than not the big leaps were really a series of incremental and hard fought steps, that only in retrospect appear to be punctuated shifts in our field.
At first I was frightened. But I was also excited. The intellectual focus of my career has often been somewhat narrow. I read and review for the journals and conferences most directly relevant to my own scholarly work in perception. As a gift to myself and to the benefit of my students, I (like most profs I know) bring in cutting edge articles to classes for us to discuss and these go way beyond our directed interests. They are a delicacy to be savored and to motivate us for the intellectual feast in which we partake. These little forays away from my areas of expertise are fun intellectual side journeys. On this journey it was all intellectual feast and deep scientific indulgence.
For this journey I had to go very far outside of my comfort zone. It required me to read broadly to prepare — often between 30-50 articles, books, and related materials from a person’s career. I left the well-worn paths of my scholarly record time and time again in an effort to understand and meaningfully converse with a person about the work they’ve spent decades developing. I went from scientist to historical archivist. From teacher to student. From academic to (dare I say) journalist. (Not sure I nor journalists would be comfortable with that last bit, but our processes do seem quite parallel.) From quiet introvert to social extrovert as I sought to engage in conversations with strangers. It was often surprising and it has been emotional. I’ve had so many “a-ha!!!” moments, so many frustrating nights where I thought there was no way I had enough minutes to be ready for my next day’s conversation. I’ve felt inspired by some, intimidated by some, welcomed by many, and, inevitably, drained after compounding heaps of intellectual effort with constant travel. I feel like I’ve made friends — some lifelong — with some of those I’ve met. Those emotional connections are both uplifting and scary as they are a constant reminder of the burden to be wholly accurate and realistic in anything I report. I need to represent people as they are: creative, individual, beautiful, but flawed and human.
My sense of self, my sense of home, my sense of purpose all feel altered. This year my home is the time I spend with my family. Not a place but an experience. We are untethered, but we are together and whole. The emotional peak of this journey was celebrating the bar mitzvah of my son with my family in Jerusalem. He claimed his maturity and intellectual place in our culture with this ritual — in many ways the culmination of his young life’s experience. He turned 13 on this journey and is navigating that precarious transition to adulthood. I hope he is embracing both the autonomy and responsibility of his newfound adulthood with the curiosity, silliness, and mindfulness of childhood. These moments — seeing him both as adult and as child— have overwhelmed me with love and pride.
My fear of reaching out to influential scholars has passed after months of this project, and the stories from their lives and research continue to reverberate in my mind. In each conversation I notice (and occasionally interject) the parallels between scientists (those two that play clarinet, those who never dreamed they would finish college, much less get their doctorates, those who showed audacity and persevered in the face of direct opposition while developing their work).
As this journey turns towards the east coast and the return to my home institution it is both strange and fragile to imagine the end of this year of travel. I think my purpose with this project has gained focus — it has certainly gained momentum. Ideas and themes have started to become clear for the book, better enabling me to collate people’s stories into Psychology’s recent history. I’ve started to more fully understand and embrace the forces of war and social events that changed the intellectual course of our field. I’ve started to see the connections between people, ideas, and conferences that percolated into movements. I look forward to the remaining leg of this journey with anticipation of speaking with the great people scheduled in the months ahead and then settling in to write the book!
Whatever the case, this has been the most incredible year of my adult life. Here’s the summary, so far…
48,000 mi / 77,000 km of distance traveled (including 7 countries and 4 continents) and counting…
44 apartments/houses that we lived in each for multiple days or weeks at a time while traveling to visit about 50 different cities/towns/villages (more scheduled)
64 conversations with influential psychologists (more scheduled…)
4000+ articles, books, grants, and background materials that I’ve read about all of them (another 150 downloaded to prepare for the upcoming ones)
3 birthday parties, 1 bar mitzvah, and the birth of 1 child from a colleague celebrated!
5 deaths of friends and close colleagues mourned
1 book of Psychology’s recent history and systems in preparation and four more proposals for books being crafted relating to the journey, the people I’ve met, and the experiences of doing all this
100 posts about the journey and from the conversations to my website (so far…)